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Why Dominion’s settlement with Fox News was met with disappointment

And why we can’t expect justice from a civil suit filed by a private company. 

The legal team for Dominion Voting Systems leaves the courthouse Tuesday in Wilmington, Delaware, after reaching a settlement in its defamation case against Fox News.
Justin Nelson (2R), joined by fellow members of the Dominion Voting Systems legal team, depart the Leonard Williams Justice Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on April 18, 2023. - Vote machine maker Dominion and Fox News settled a defamation case over falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election aired on the conservative TV network, a US judge announced Tuesday. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

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The settlement reached in Dominion’s defamation lawsuit against Fox News, at $787.5 million, is the largest publicly known defamation settlement ever, and is, obviously, a gargantuan sum of money. Still, it seems such a hollow conclusion to such a saga. 

Those of us who have repeatedly seen attempts at accountability for all of the attacks on democracy — and on the truth — since 2020 were, once again, left yearning for a more satisfying conclusion. 

There wasn’t, I’m told, a massive wave of surprise in the courtroom itself when the settlement was announced. (It is, I suppose, hard to get any emotion at all out of a gallery of people who have been unexpectedly trapped in a hot room for multiple hours.) Outside of Wilmington, though, there were pangs of disappointment and shock.

On social media and elsewhere, onlookers decried Dominion’s willingness to let Fox off “easy.” The settlement accounts for about 20 percent of Fox’s cash on hand, an amount the company can easily pay even if it hurts. And sure, the network was forced to admit its claims about Dominion were found to be false — but only in one stilted sentence in its press release, not through a detailed, on-air statement to correct the record. But shouldn’t Rupert Murdoch and Tucker Carlson be forced to answer questions about their conduct in person at a trial? 

Others say not to despair — after all, a lawsuit against Fox by the voting systems company Smartmatic is outstanding. Might that satisfy our craving for accountability?

No. It won’t.

Frankly, that’s a heck of a lot to expect out of lawsuits filed by a couple of small technology companies. National catharsis, after all, isn’t the point of civil lawsuits.  

Yes, the Dominion trial is over. And next, Smartmatic will have its turn. And in the meantime, Dominion still has a bunch of lawsuits against a bunch of other people for similar conduct, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell among them. Any of these might go differently than this one — more money, less money, more trial days, no trial days at all — but no outcome will feel like justice for the Rest of Us, because these lawsuits aren’t for the Rest of Us.

Dominion lawyer Stephen Shackelford stood before the courthouse after news of the settlement on Tuesday and dramatically, but fairly, announced, “Money is accountability, and we got that today from Fox.”

Indeed. After all, the “we” in that sentence is Dominion, and all of the employees of that company whose lives have been turned upside down. 

Even if Rup and Tuck had given up the whole game while testifying, admitting to everything we imagine they might admit to in our wildest dreams, no one who believed Fox News’ lies would have heard them do that. The network has barely mentioned the settlement as it is — six weeks of trial coverage would not have elevated the facts and truth coming out of the courtroom. 

And, eventually, the machinations of the trial would have become boring even to MSNBC viewers: no cameras or recordings were allowed, and the phone-conference system providing audio was — to put it mildly — not a particularly effective way to engage. The public’s perception of the trial would have been entirely dependent on the media’s portrayal of it.  

Many of the battles spectators were most eager to see had already been won by Dominion’s legal team in the pre-trial filings and hearings. The judge had already determined that the claims Fox made about Dominion were false, for example, and was not going to entertain arguments otherwise. The trial would thus have focused entirely on whether Fox knew their claims to be false at the time that they made those claims and to what extent the claims actually harmed Dominion’s revenues. Timelines and earnings reports, however juicy, are not exactly the stuff of television courtroom drama.

On Showtime series and in our dreams, national crises end with one big Screw You. There is a moment when the bad guy gets his comeuppance, and everyone knows it and recognizes it as such. That type of resolution cannot be found in a civil suit filed by a private voting machine company. 

No possible resolution of this trial was going to result in all of the local conspiracy theorists who have been elected to office throwing up their hands and disavowing their deeply held beliefs. No settlement amount was going to convince Fox News viewers that, really, Fox News had been lying. 

Undoing the damage and disproving the vast network of conspiracy theories built up over the last four years will take far longer than a six-week trial in Wilmington, Delaware, and cost far more. It will take different amounts of time in every county that has been impacted by election fraud misinformation in profoundly different ways.

So, I suppose, yes, the conclusion of Dominion’s lawsuit against Fox News is disappointing. But to the extent we were using the trial as a proxy for controlling the erosion of democracy, it was always going to be. 

Back Then

Prior to this lawsuit, the largest known settlement of a defamation case was in 2017. Beef Products, Inc. had sued Disney, the parent company of ABC News, after ABC aired a report on “pink slime” being used as filler in beef products. The company won $177 million — one third the amount here. 

The news report had implied the product — called “finely textured beef” — was harmful, though it was not, leading grocery stores to pledge not to carry products that used the ingredient (around 70 percent of ground beef products at the time did). The company’s sales slashed by more than half as a result. 

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In Other Voting News

  • Cleta Mitchell, a Trump ally who aided his attempt to reverse the 2020 election, told an audience of campaign donors at a Republican National Committee meeting last weekend in Nashville that the party should work to restrict voting on college campuses, the automatic sending of mail ballots, and same-day registration, according to the Washington Post. “The Left has manipulated the electoral systems to favor one side … theirs,” said her presentation, titled “A Level Playing Field for 2024.” 
  • Crystal Mason, a Texas woman who was convicted in 2018 for voting illegally, had her case reheard this week in a state court of appeals. At issue is whether prosecutors can prove that Mason was aware she was not allowed to vote when she cast a provisional ballot in 2016 while out on supervised release on a tax felony, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports.
  • CNN reports on a January 2021 text message exchange between Trump allies, including Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, who discussed using stolen voting machine data from a Georgia county to overturn the results of the state’s 2020 Senate runoff. The unauthorized access of Coffee County’s voting system is under investigation by the Fulton County district attorney and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
  • A county judge in Arizona ruled that it’s OK for the Cochise County recorder to take over the duties of the county’s departed elections director, KGUN reports. The state attorney general had sued to prevent the recorder, who has said he does not trust how elections are run, from getting more control over elections. The judge ruled that the plan still gives the Cochise County Board of Supervisors adequate authority over elections.
  • My Pillow founder Mike Lindell has been ordered to pay out a $5 million reward he offered in a public challenge to disprove his claim of 2020 election manipulation, the Washington Post reports. The Nevada man who analyzed Lindell’s data and proved him wrong — as affirmed by an arbitration panel — is a computer forensics expert and a Trump voter.

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

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